In my previous post, PROP conflict of interest in Phoenix House rehabs, I explain how the president of PROP is the medical director of this shady business.
Belle Terre, the former home of a 19th-century copper baron, housed the 168-bed Phoenix House Delaware County Center, a private, nonprofit residential drug treatment facility. When Szczupak arrived in June 2012, all was not well behind Belle Terre’s stately walls.
In the two years prior to Szczupak’s arrival, New York’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) had twice closed Belle Terre to new admissions after inspectors discovered illegal drug use, insufficient treatment and bad record-keeping, among many other regulatory violations. In each case, Belle Terre resumed admissions after Phoenix House submitted a “corrective action plan” to regulators.
Even so, residents and a counselor at Belle Terre when Szczupak was there said little had changed. Residents trafficked in drugs, cigarettes and other contraband. Nor were residents receiving the 40 hours a week of therapeutic services OASAS required.
Sending addicts to treatment rather than jail or prison for nonviolent offenses has become increasingly popular across the U.S. political spectrum.
drug treatment [is hailed] as a smart way to tackle the problems of prison overcrowding and excessive sentencing.
This effectively empties the prisons right into the recovery industry’s pocket.
Facilities like Belle Terre are part of that solution. Underwritten by taxpayers, they work with the courts and probation departments to rehabilitate offenders. In 2012, the U.S. criminal justice system sent 580,000 people to drug treatment.
This creates a guaranteed customer base backed by the US government, and makes this business opportunity a veritable gold mine. Since the treatments fail 90% of the time, for which the cure is only to try again, existing customers can be recycled multiple times each, increasing business even more.
At Belle Terre, criminal-justice referrals account for the majority of residents. The facility is run by Phoenix Houses of New York, whose parent foundation is one of the nation’s largest drug treatment nonprofits, operating in 10 states and the District of Columbia. In the year ended June 20, 2014, the Phoenix House Foundation and its affiliates reported operating revenue of $141 million.
Phoenix Houses of New York is 95 percent publicly funded and enjoys star-studded endorsements.
In November last year, OASAS suspended admissions to Belle Terre and four other Phoenix Houses of New York facilities. In a letter to Phoenix House’s then-chief executive in November 2014, OASAS said Phoenix House had “persistent regulatory violations and resident/patient care concerns dating back several years.”
An OASAS site report on the five facilities went into graphic detail. The regulator’s findings at some or all of the facilities included
- use of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other illegal drugs;
- sexual activity among residents;
- reports of violence and sexual assault;
- insufficient, inadequately trained or abusive staff;
- dirty premises; and
- lax security, with residents coming and going as they wished.
In each case, OASAS allowed admissions to resume “based upon sustained systemic improvements,” the agency said in a written response to questions from Reuters.
On Aug. 11, 2010, three months after the judge’s initial complaint, a team of OASAS inspectors descended on Belle Terre unannounced. As the inspectors introduced themselves to a staff member, who was leading a house meeting, residents began shouting, “Shut this place down,” and “Get us out of here,” according to the regulator’s report, a copy of which Reuters obtained New York’s Freedom of Information Law.
Some former counselors told Reuters they lacked the training required to provide the individualized, holistic drug and alcohol addiction treatment Phoenix House promised on its website. Group sessions were haphazard, often pieced together from information gathered through Google searches the night before, they said.
Treatment records were suspect. “There were times when I would say, ‘I didn’t write this. That’s not my handwriting,’ ” said Glenn Williamson, a former counselor and military veteran.
Another counselor, who asked not to be identified for fear of losing her license, recalled chasing a young man high on the synthetic opioid fentanyl around the grounds to keep him out of sight during an OASAS inspection.
In November 2011, OASAS again halted admissions. The agency cited
- insufficient clinical and mental health services,
- strip searches conducted without consent, and
- failure to file incident reports.
- Residents drove program vans and
- stayed up all night as “night watchman,” which
- kept them from participating in group therapy.
OASAS also found that Belle Terre’s new director, Henry Bennett, obstructed their request for records in an attempt to modify them before handing them over. Phoenix House fired Bennett. Bennett, who went on to work for various treatment providers before retiring in Georgia, said he had not been aware that the records were being altered.
About 75 percent of Belle Terre residents at the time were on psychotropic medications, state records show, but the only psychiatric care for residents was a four-hour drive away in New York City. A van took seven residents there twice a week
Courts rely on treatment providers for updates on offenders’ performance. If offenders don’t comply with a treatment provider’s rules, the court can use sanctions such as short jail stints or can extend their time in treatment. In some cases, offenders end up spending more time incarcerated than if they had eschewed drug treatment.
At Belle Terre, the threat of reporting infractions could become a tool of abuse. As is common practice in many rehab programs, residents were assigned jobs in a hierarchy, from the lowest cleaning crew to managing other residents’ schedules. This system, which counselors and residents called “the Structure,” was meant to help residents break bad habits and prepare for working life.
Former residents said the system became a means of settling personal scores. Higher-ranking residents could punish others for minor infractions, such as talking in the medication line. Infractions could result in cancellation of family visits, or could be reported to the courts.
PARTNERS IN ADDICTION
When Szczupak arrived at Belle Terre in June 2012, the facility was still short-staffed. Residents at the time described the lack of counseling and widespread use of illegal drugs that OASAS staff had cited over the prior two years.
When Pardo [his girlfriend] spoke with Szczupak on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, six months after his arrival at Belle Terre, he seemed “really mad at the world, very dark, not making any jokes,” she said. “He seemed like a shell.”
The next day, Moody said, Szczupak told him he would rather be in jail, with a clear end-date. He packed his belongings and walked out without approval.
That Saturday, police were called to a Brooklyn house where they found Szczupak, dead from a heroin overdose.
In November 2014, regulators again suspended admissions at Belle Terre, as well as four other Phoenix House facilities. State regulators noted high staff turnover and need for improved clinical practices at Belle Terre. They also warned the facility to let clients speak to their attorneys without staff present.
In March, OASAS inspected Belle Terre again, prompted by unspecified complaints against director Alan Hargrove, OASAS reported. Phoenix House then fired Hargrove, based on OASAS’s feedback.
This is what our tax dollars are paying for: a corrupt industry that damages the people entrusted into its care by our government.
This is the business that is profiting from the media-generated opioid “epidemic” (which kills far fewer people than hospital errors).